The following was written by Jena Whitaker, a 3rd year graduate student in the French section of the German and Romance Languages department. Jena was hired to inventory JHU’s holdings in rare and ephemeral pamphlets from the French Revolution.

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An image of Louis XVI on the guillotine, a machine on which he suffered in Paris

This year, the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University have been partnering with a consortium of French Studies librarians as well as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) in an NEH-funded project aimed at improving access to pamphlets from the French Revolution. The project, which was initiated and proposed by the University of Florida, seeks to develop an online collection of French revolutionary pamphlets so that scholars can more easily consult these essential historical documents. JHU’s holdings will eventually be added to this database, along with the holdings of many other US academic and special libraries, as well as those of the BnF.

Pamphlets played a central role in the French Revolution. They disseminated subversive political beliefs, circulated propaganda, and spread revolutionary ideas to a broad public in Paris and throughout France. Brevity, portability, and inexpensive costs made these documents an ideal media form. Within these concise texts, usually ranging from 5 to 49 pages, writers critiqued the existing social order as well as attacked the government, the King, the nobility and the clergy.

Thus far, my work on the project has consisted of compiling a detailed inventory of the French pamphlets housed in the Special Collections of the Milton S. Eisenhower, Garrett and Peabody libraries. There are approximately 500 pamphlets! Many of these pamphlets are part of the newly acquired Jean Goulemot collection. The pamphlets in the Goulemot collection are primarily decrees and laws created by the National Convention and the National Assembly as well as issues from important revolutionary newspapers such as the Journal de Paris, Journal des patriotes, Journal du matin des amis de la liberté et de l’égalité and the Gazette Nationale, ou le Moniteur universel, a creation of the Old Regime press baron Charles-Joseph Panckoucke.

In addition to political subjects, the French revolutionary pamphlets found in JHU’s special collections contain a wealth of social, cultural and historical information. A number of these pamphlets address women’s rights: Réponse des femmes de Paris au Cahier de l’ordre le plus nombreux du royaume or Requête des dames à l’Assemblée nationale. Other key subjects explored within these pamphlets include the slave trade, educational law and legislation, Jacobins, finance, festivals, passports and even prophecies.

A significant change in journalistic techniques as well as an explosive growth of the press shaped and sustained the French Revolution. Prior to the revolution, the domestic press functioned in accordance with the principles of royal Absolutism. Licensed and censored by the government, the domestic press had many limitations. It was unable to openly report on government policies and as a result, it could not portray a realistic picture of France’s political life. Yet, after the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, the French press underwent a radical transformation. Censorship disintegrated and the newspapers of the ancien régime were replaced by a new form of journalism in which writers covered the debates of the National Assembly and offered their own political perspectives, which were often controversial and rebellious.

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The cover of a pamphlet that contains the Procès-verbal de la Confédération des François

Interested in reading more about this groundbreaking media event?  Check out Jeremy D. Popkin’s Revolutionary News, which provides a fascinating account of journalistic practices during the French Revolution.

Would you like to read in French? Eugène Hatin’s Histoire de la Presse en France is also an excellent resource.

For a full reference guide of texts published during the French Revolution, consult the Catalogue de la Révolution Française, a five volume manual assembled by André Martin and Gérard Walter, and the standard bibliography on this subject.

Stay tuned for an online guide to our French Revolution collections.

Like the French Pamphlet project on Facebook for further updates on the project’s evolution!

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